Catalan Independence as a Spear for Decentralisation

The Catalan parliament’s declaration of independence is not a sea change in the way modern governance will work, particularly as the Spanish government has come down on this declaration of independence with an iron fist, allowing the Guardia Civil to abuse referendum voters and now removing the Catalan government from power. Instead it is a potentially catalytic moment that signals new possibilities in a world still largely (but only nominally) determined by the consensus of large, centralised nation-states controlling the main levers of political and socio-economic power. And judging by the reactions of the Spanish government and the EU, such potentiality worries the established governmental frameworks in Europe. Of course the Catalan independence movement is not a panacea, with many problems from the actors involved to the endgame vision envisioned by activists and politicians. Its strength lies in its innate ability to question received wisdom and the apodicticity of the state as the only means of legislation and decision-making, suggesting that Catalan independence can become a spear for further decentralisation and the move toward a multi-scalar, multi-institutional complex of governance and rule-making.

This apodicticity is evident in the way the Catalan’s desires for independence is viewed as an egregious desire that must be resisted at all costs. Such an action is viewed as unconstitutional, and the rule of law must be re-implemented so as to stop this foolhardy development before a real crisis rears its head. Diego Zuluaga in the Spectator presents this perspective, suggesting that the aim of the Spanish government is “to restore the legal order and clear the way for new regional elections and a legitimate and law-abiding government”[1]. This is because the referendum was illegal according to the Spanish constitution as was the subsequent declaration of independence. Nominally such a situation is illegal, yet the apodictic nature of this illegality is never truly explored. Talking of the rule of law and constitutionality suggests that such institutions are unquestionable and static. This ahistorical reading is ironic given how many defenders of the unity of Spain regularly question the strength of Catalan feelings surrounding independence and suggest that Catalan nationalism is itself ahistorical and subject to change. For all the talk of the illegitimacy of Catalan independence and the irregularities of the 2017 referendum, the Spanish constitution ratified in 1978 was originally approved via a nation-wide referendum that itself was full of irregularities.

As Gelderloos notes, “the new Constitution was approved in a referendum marred with irregularities. For starters, the population had no input on what kind of government they would get. For most people, voting “yes” was nothing more than voting “no” against the continuation of the fascist regime. It is highly unlikely, for example, that most people, given the choice, would have voted in favor of suddenly having a monarch (yes, that’s right, the post-fascists went out and found a king to give the new democracy more centralization and stability). What’s more, voting rules were changed in the midst of the campaign, some provinces experienced up to 30% irregularities, more than a million people showed up twice on the voting rolls, 300,000 people with a legal right to vote in Madrid didn’t appear at all, and the census data only matched up in 11 of Spain’s 50 provinces”[2].

Further, since the ratification of the constitution (which included concessions surrounding the autonomy of regions and nations within Spain) there has been legal wrangling over how this autonomy is defined and developed. In 2005 statutes of autonomy were passed via popular referendum in Catalonia which reemphasised the original constitutional prerogatives of regional autonomy. However, in 2010 these statutes (which had been passed in the Spanish parliament) were significantly revised by the constitutional court who “annulled fourteen articles and subjected twenty-seven items to its own interpretation”[3]. In a similar vein, the People’s Party that brought an action of unconstitutionality against multiple articles in the statute, despite similar provisions being in action in many other regions of Spain (such as Andalusia). Thus the ironic nature of Spanish nationalism is evident, as one can question the provisions and statutes of the Spanish constitution and secondary legislation, but only in the name of Spanish unity. If one is critical or questioning of such an axiom, it’s clear your voice will not be heard.

Considering the continued hangover from the Franco era in the Spanish governmental institutions, such a position is probably unsurprising. The concept of an indivisible Spain has a large history in the fascism of Francoist Spain, with the post-Franco era in many ways a continuity of this axiomatic position. For example, ” the part of the Constitution that says Spain is indivisible was added not by the “fathers” of the Constitution, but by the military”[4]. This is even more galling considering the amnesty given to a range of Franco-era politicians and military leaders, many of whom went on to positions of power in the Guardia Civil, the People’s Party and the Spanish judicial system. As a result, such a situation raises a foundational question, what is the rule of law?

Surely the rule of law is a mutual set of obligations that bind citizens with their government, rather than top-down diktat that is made unquestionable and unreformable, except to those who hold political and judicial power. Can this situation be said to prevail when the transition from a fascist state to a constitutional monarchy contains a large amount of Franco-era officials and institutions. Can it be said to prevail when a foundational political situation, that of the creation and continuation of the constitution, is decided via a simplistic, dichotomous question. “The drafting of the 1978 Constitution was overseen by the military and excluded the people from decisions about the monarchy, the capitalist nature of the economy, equality of peoples, and the country’s foreign alliances”[5], with post-constitution legislation taking a similar route as seen with the Catalan statutes of autonomy. As Gramsci noted, the rule of law is itself a matrix of consent and coercion. In the current situation, where the Spanish government has attempted to crush the independence movement in the vacuous name of the law, that consent is becoming ever-more stretched to its limits.

This doesn’t mean that Catalan independence in and of itself is a great thing. Rather, it raises the question who gets to govern over oneself, and where political power should lie. With the economic collapse in Spain having created major issues with chronic unemployment[6] and stagnant wage growth[7] (despite relatively strong economic growth) this question has become even more important as the prevailing economic system continues to fail large sections of the Spanish population. This is why the Spanish nationalist perspective is so inadequate. It presupposes a static, ahistorical reality where everything can and will stay the same. The Spanish economy will continue to rely on its finance and tourism sectors at the expense of manufacturing and domestic energy production. The Spanish government can continue to be centralised, defining the rule of law in an ahistorical vacuum.

What Catalan separatism has done is question these presuppositions, and expose them as simply contextual and fortuitous events that should be open to debate and critique, with such critique providing the basis for different perspectives and new institutional structures to be arranged and codified. It comes down to a fundamental dichotomy, that between centralisation and decentralisation. While centralisation is certainly the modus operandi of modernity, the great innovations from the development of industrial economic organisation to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment grew out of a decentralised politico-economic background that encouraged experimentation and a multi-institutional organisation across Europe. From the development of the clock in the eotechnic age of industrial development, “a new kind of power‐machine, in which the source of power and the transmission were of such a nature as to ensure the even flow of energy throughout the works and to make possible regular production and a standardized product”[8] that integrated into the decentralised village/town communities. This “diffusion of (industrial) power was an aid to the diffusion of population: as long as industrial power was represented directly by the utilization of energy, rather than by financial investment, the balance between the various regions of Europe and between town and country within a region was pretty evenly maintained”, creating a set of industrial developments that were complementary across different European regions. Such was seen in Corboda, where there existed “extensive libraries and research centers, music, food, literature, philosophy, and the creation of aqueducts and culturally hybridized architectural wonders”[9] that developed through the decentralised interactions of regional and foreign ethnicities within the local markets and bazaars. Even with the development of the early paleotechnic era, where industrial production began to focus around steam power and fossil fuel use, much of its original growth occurred within the interstices of European city regions, growing within the guilds and associations of producers. With the move toward the neotechnic era, the “electricity‐and‐alloy complex”[10], these decentralist possibilities were and are still present. The decentralising potential of electrical power within industry meant the possibility of moving toward “lean production” whose “central principle is that overall flow is more important to cost‐cutting than maximizing the efficiency of any particular stage in isolation”[11]. Concentration is generally decentral, existing in multiple economies of scale ranging from the local and regional to the national and multinational. As with the historical growth of industry in the decentralised polities of Europe (the city-states, towns and feudal villages), the potentialities of lean production can only come with a concomitant political organisation. Already, one can see such developments with the Barcelona En Comu movement that has supported peer production efforts in Barcelona, developing a partner government that works with social entrepreneurs, being a “guarantor of civic rights”[12] that is losing its separateness with civil society, forming a multiplicitous public sphere that combines economic development with political engagement and autonomy.

This is where the potential of Catalan separatism lies, as a spear for further decentralisation, both within Catalonia down to the cities and towns, and in other nations and regions where similar developments can already be seen emerging from the interstitial interactions of citizens and entrepreneurs. Catalan independence should be the beginning of a flowering of complementary movements that further push the processes of de-containerisation, pulling power away from states and other centralised authorities and toward a multi-institutional context of layered governing structures, where rules exist on a range of planes (akin to the Fueros which defined early Spanish and Catalan laws[13]). States (at least in their current form) have proven inadequate in dealing with the financial crisis and its aftermath. Sluggish growth, wage stagnation and chronic unemployment have festered in nearly all Western economies, creating a situation of seemingly permanent difficulty and dispossession. It is in social movements, regional governments and municipal centres where new ideas have been experimented with and began to flourish (from the Greek municipal movement and the development of integrated anchor institutions in American and British cities, to the political entrepreneurs of South Chinese cities and the Shenzhen production systems). “In Catalunya, outside the sodium glare of the Spectacle, there is another kind of independence. It is based on food sovereignty, free access to housing and alternative medicine, the defense of all languages and cultures against commercial exploitation or state homogenization” that “is being constructed in a large network of squatted social centers, anti-capitalist clinics and print shops, free schools, liberated housing, ecological farms and gardens”[14]. The independence movement and its potential fruition can be the catalyst for these further developments, spurning the nationalist view that lives in its own static suicide, wishing everything to return to the pre-financial crisis era when things weren’t questioned because supposed prosperity kept everyone in line. The nation-state as a vehicle for autonomy and economic power is dead, and the debate must now move forward onto what kind of structures and institutions people want, and how they themselves would like to control and govern their lives.








[8] Carson, K. The Homebrew Industrial Revolution, 5


[10] Carson, K. The Homebrew Industrial Revolution, 8

[11] Carson, K. The Homebrew Industrial Revolution, 9-10




5 thoughts on “Catalan Independence as a Spear for Decentralisation

  1. “libraries and research centers, music, food, literature, philosophy, and the creation of aqueducts and culturally hybridized architectural wonders” have absolutely NOTHING to with markets and commerce.

    In fact these things (like any good creative art and science) often represent the most anti-market phenomena there is

    The destructive effects commercialization (the neoliberal ideas coming from The Mont Perelin society) had on science and academia, for example, is well-known, as documented in this book:


    • You’re creating an incredibly limited definition of markets. Markets in the sense of those found in Corboda and many other feudal towns and cities were highly regulated by municipal authorities, guilds and religious authorities. Markets were akin to social centres (Habermas’s idea of a bourgeois public sphere for example) that were more than just commerce but there for the inter-flow of ideas and research. If anything, markets in this context are a part of a decentralised public sphere of interactions rather than a centre of high commerce.

      Further, I didn’t claim that these phenomena were the sole creation of markets. I stated that they were created through the myriad interactions of people who may well have met in markets and bazaars as they were social centres as I’ve just mentioned. At no point do I say libraries, research, philosophy or infrastructure were planned or built via markets. In fact no one claims that as far as I’m aware.


      • I’m not limiting anything at all, I’m talking about markets as commodity-exchange, the social relationships that involve buying and selling.

        The sort of creative activities that you’re talking often operate in what sociologist Alain Caillé calls the world of primary sociality where market-exchange doesn’t exist and/or is taboo.

        In the sphere of primary sociality (like in families or between friends), economic interactions takes the form of gift-exchange (two-way transfers) or sharing and pooling (one-way transfers).

        Since you never mention the word “gift” once in your articles, I should give a short definition:

        Gift exchange differs from barter or market exchange because the value of the gifts is judged qualitatively, not quantitatively as in the case of commodities. Gift-exchange is based on ‘the capacity for actors (agents, subjects) to extract or elicit from others items that then become the object of their relationship’.

        In the famous book called Gifts and Commodities, Christopher Gregory (an economic anthropologist) suggests this is a general tendency.

        Gift economies tend to personify objects. Commodity/market dominated economies, like our own, do the opposite: they tend to treat human beings, or at least, aspects of human beings, like objects. The most obvious example is human labor: in modern economics we talk of “goods and services” as if human activity itself were something analogous to an object, which can be bought or sold in the same way as cheese, or tire-irons.

        Gregory lays out a tidy set of oppositions. Gifts are transactions that are meant to create or effect “qualitative” relations between persons; they take place within a preexisting web of personal relations; therefore, even the objects involved have a tendency to take on the qualities of people.

        Commodity exchange (market), on the other hand, is meant to establish a “quantitative” equivalence of value between objects; it should ideally be done quite impersonally; therefore, there is a tendency to treat even the human beings involved like things.

        As for sharing and pooling, which are not even exchanges, there’s a new little book “Anthropology and the Economy of Sharing” by Thomas Widlok, which talks about in detail:

        The perfect introduction to the all thing “Gift” related is the book “The World of the Gift” by Alain Caillé and Jacques T. Godbout where as the cover of the says they show that ” contrary to the modern assumption that societies function on the basis of market exchange and the pursuit of self-interest, the gift still constitutes the foundation of our social fabric. The authors describe the gift not as an object but as a social connection, perhaps the most important social connection because it creates a sense of obligation to respond in kind. They examine the gift in a broad range of cases such as blood and organ donation; volunteer work; the bonds between friends, couples, and family; Santa Claus; the interaction between performers and their audience; and the relation of the artist to society” :


        You seem to be talking about marketplaces, not markets. Yes, you’re right, there are plenty of non-market and anti-market actives within marketplaces. The act sharing tea before talking in Arabic marketplaces is a famous example.

        Since you seem to be a sociology-literate person, you should take a look at this on ‘Towards a Social ontology of market systems’:

        Click to access CWP%2009-06%20soc%20ontol%20mkt%20systems.pdf

        Elder-Vass also talks about Habermas’ (whom you cited) concept of the “Lifeworld” in another paper.


      • “Gregory lays out a tidy set of oppositions. Gifts are transactions that are meant to create or effect “qualitative” relations between persons; they take place within a preexisting web of personal relations; therefore, even the objects involved have a tendency to take on the qualities of people.”

        And like other oppositions that are supposedly airtight, the world is actually much more complex than abstract dichotomies. Maybe you can explain how this dichotomy exists in relation to Granovetter’s theory of embeddedness in relation to business and market-based networks, where relations of affinity and friendship interact alongside a business-exchange rationality. How does it interact with Weber’s social action axioms, which posit a more complex set of social action formats that define all sorts of socio-economic relations, including market transactions. For example look at the use of branding to develop effectual relations with customers, positing products as more than a simple commodity but an emotive concept that redefines how one sees such a product. Similarly, such branding relates to household consumption of products, pushing particular narratives that emphasise family and community rather than the generally hyper-individualised nature of commodity products. The effectual relations you describe as relating to gifts can be seen developing or being pushed into particular commodity products and exchanges.


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